PO Box 695 - Peru, NY 12972 - (518) 643-2790

Breed Conservation in the United States of America

  • Fifth Congress on Iberoamerican Breeds and Criollos
  • November 28th to December 1st
  • Havana, Cuba

Donald E Bixby, DVM, Executive Director, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy PO Box 477, Pittsboro, North Carolina 27312 USA

D. Philip Sponenberg DVM, Ph.D., College of Veterinary Medicine, Virginia Polytechnic and & State University, Blaclcsburg, Virginia 24061 USA

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is the leading force for breed conservation in the United States. The organization was established in 1977 by a group of agricultural historians who recognized the disappearance of breeds of livestock that were part of the traditional culture of many parts of North America. These historians banded together with farmers and animal scientists to form what was originally called the American Minor Breeds Conservancy. In 1986, Rare Breeds Canada was formed to focus on Canadian breeds, but since the border is relatively open to livestock, the organizations collaborate on the breeds held in common between the two countries.

While the organization was initiated as an effort to save rare breeds, maturity revealed that the conservation of a full spectrum of breeds is how biodiversity is expressed in farm animals. A breed expresses the characteristics of an identifiable genetic package. It is therefore important to conserve the genetic integrity of wide range of breeds to safeguard the full spectrum of biodiversity in the livestock species. Breeds are the genetic resource most easily studied, used and conserved.

What is a Breed?

Defining breed is important to the conservation issue. A breed is a population of animals that share common characteristics that distinguishes them from other populations or breeds within the same species. When mated together, members of a breed consistently reproduce this same set of characteristics. Breeds are created over a long period of time, and will have a history that documents this creation. Crossing breeds interrupts this history of consistency in the offspring and alters the genetic integrity of a breed. For that reason conservation must be accomplished with "purebred" breeding animals.

Types of breeds

Four breed types are found in North America: industrial stocks, standardized breeds, landraces, and feral populations stocks. Each of these types differs according to its development, its selection history, the level of uniformity and the role of human breeders.

Industrial stocks originated from portion of a standardized breed or a cross between two or more standardized breeds, with further selection for maximum performance in a closely controlled environment Examples are Holstein dairy cattle and Cornish Rock broilers.

A standardized breed is a product of close human selection for specific production characteristics and phenotypic uniformity. Standardized breeds usually develop within a structure that may include herd books, individual pedigrees, breeders association. Most breeds in the USA are of the standardized type and of British, European or more recent American origin. Examples are Cleveland Bay horses, Brown Swiss cattle and Katahdin Hair sheep.

A landrace breed is a product of strong natural selection with minimal human selection. They are well adapted to specific environments and have excellent reproductive and survival characteristics. They have not been selected for agricultural production characteristics, but rather for survival. Landrace individuals are often variable in appearance but exhibit a genotypic uniformity. These breeds have survived where range laws persisted longest, in the South and West of the USA. Since these areas were under strong Spanish influence, many of our landrace breeds are criollo breeds. Examples are: Texas Longhorn, Florida Cracker, Pinewoods cattle; Navajo-Churro and Gulf Coast Native sheep; Spanish goats; Spanish Mustang and Barb horses.

Feral populations result when animals escape or are released from human management and once again live under natural selection. A few feral population in North American have been isolated for a long time and have come to fit the genetic definition of a breed. Some of these feral breeds arc being conserved in their natural habitat (in situ) while other are being conserved (ex situ) by re-domestication in the hands of breeders.. Two examples of Spanish foundation feral breeds are Ossabaw Island swine from one of the Georgia barrier islands (in situ), and Santa Cruz Island sheep from one of the California Channel Islands (ex situ).

Conservation Activities of American Livestock Breeds Conservancy

Research - The first step in any conservation effort is to identify and quantify the resources in question. Knowing what we have helps us to determine where limited conservation resources should be focused. Until very recently the United Slates Department of Agriculture has not recognized the importance of protecting the genetic diversity in our national herds and flocks. As a result, the most important work of ALBC continues to be research of breed populations. Monitoring is continuous with periodic inclusive censuses. Annual registrations maintained by breed associations and major breeders of each breed of livestock are surveyed. These data are tabulated to measure the breed population as well as the reproductive and genetic health of each breed. The results of this analysis are used to generate an animal Conservation Priority List This list currently includes more that 100 breeds of livestock and poultry and determines the breeds on which to focus conservation efforts.

(Table 1) Conservation Priority Livestock Breeds 2001

  • Critical - fewer than 200 annual North American registrations and estimated fewer than 2,000 global population
  • Rare - fewer than 1,000 annual North American registrations and estimated fewer than 5,000 global population.
  • Watch - fewer than 2,500 annual North American registrations and estimated fewer than 10,000 global population. Also included are breeds with genetic or numerical concerns or have a limited geographic distribution.
  • Study - Breeds that are of genetic interest but lack definition, genetic or historic documentation.
  • Recovering - Breeds which were once listed in one of the other categories and have exceeded Watch category numbers but are still in need of monitoring.
Species Critical Rare Watch Study Recovering
Sheep California Variegated Mutant Cotswold Barbados Blackbelly Black Welsh Mountain
Romeldale Jacob (American) Dorset Horn Katahdin
Hog Island (F) Karakul (American) Gulf Coast Native Shetland
Santa Cruz (F) Leicester Longwool Lincoln Shropshire
Navajo-Churro Oxford Southdown
St. Croix
Wiltshire Horn

(F) feral population or breed of feral origin

Conservation Support for Breeders and Breed Associations -- Organizing people is a major element of livestock conservation because what is saved depends on who is involved, and how much is saved depends on how many people are involved. ALBC provides breed associations with technical support in establishing bylaws, breed standards, registry systems, organizing member meetings and member networks, and developing newsletters, brochures and other tools to promote the breeds. ALBC organizes an annual conference in different parts of the country to present papers and workshops on breed conservation. We also provide technical support to breeders with information about marketing, husbandry, selection for genetic conservation. Our web site is increasingly used by the public to gain information about rare breed conservation and about individual breeds.

Direct Conservation -- The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has established its own gene bank to preserve genetic materials of many of the breeds on the Conservation Priority List. The bank includes semen from 15 breeds of cattle, 2 breeds of swine and one each of goats and sheep.

In addition, ALBC has been called upon to rescue of genetically important populations subject to imminent dispersal or destruction. These have included the Wilbur Cruces Spanish Mustangs, Santa Cruz Island sheep, Sweetgrass turkeys, and Ossabaw Island asses.

Public Education -- Bringing the issue of breed conservation and the need for genetic diversity in our livestock is an important component of the work of ALBC. Our membership is a major conduit for education. Our newsletter and other publications let our members know changes in the status of breeds, conservation projects and how they can be personally involved as breed stewards.

We also provide public education through a network of sustainable agriculture groups. North Americans are discovering many uncounted costs in our chemical and energy intensive agriculture. Farmers are desperate to cut costs and increase economic returns. Many are rediscovering traditional production systems such as-rotational grazing. They are finding that these systems often work better with breeds that have not been selected for high input productions. While many of the traditional breeds lack the massive output of modern livestock strains, they often can produce at a lower cost.

Traditional educational sites such as schools, historic sites, museums, zoos and nature centers are excellent locations for appropriate livestock to be housed and interpreted in programs to audiences of all ages. These sites can also be important and valuable sites for conserving historic but currently uneconomic breeds. The public media is also a valuable way to inform the public about the importance of breed conservation or of the threatened status of a particular breed.

The industrial stocks will likely be maintained by the corporations which own them. The visibility and history of standardized breeds will help to keep them intact. Both landrace and feral populations, however, present a great conservation challenge because they lack economic value in contemporary agriculture. We know that production characteristics are rather easily selected for in a limited period of time. Complex behavioral and survival characteristics require much longer and more stringent selection. The landrace and feral populations, including may criollo breeds, are often highly and specifically adapted. Because of this long-term adaptation they are most likely to carry the divergent genes we may need for adapting to a changing environment Our mission is to find a place where these populations can thrive and retain their contribution to the genetic diversity of the livestock species.


  • Bender, M.E.F., Sponenberg, D.P., Bixby, D.E., (2000) Taking Stock of Waterfowl, ALBC, Pittsboro, North Carolina, USA.
  • Bixby, D.E., Christman, C., Ehrman, C., Sponenberg, D.P. (1994) Taking Stock: The North American Livestock Census, McDonald and Woodward, Blacksburg Virginia, USA.
  • Christiman, C.J., Hawes, R.O., Birds of a Feather: Saving Rare Turkeys from Extinction (1999) ALBC, Pittsboro, North Carolina, USA.
  • Christman, C., Sponenberg, D.P., Bixby, D.E. (1997) A Rare Breeds Album of North American Livestock Breeds, ALBC, Pittsboro, North Carolina, USA.
  • Clutton-Brock, Juliet,(1987) A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals, London: Cambridge University Press and British Museum of Natural History.
  • Mason, L.L. (1996) A World Dictionary of Livestock Breeds, Types, and Varieties, 4th Edition, CAB International, Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • Rouse, J.E., (1970) The Criollo Spanish: Cattle in the Americas, Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, USA.
  • Scherf, B.D., Ed. (1995) World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity, 2nd Edition, FAO, Rome, Italy.
  • Sponenberg, D.P., Christman, C., (1995)A Conservation Breeding Handbook, ALBC, Pittsboro, North Carolina, USA.